Skip to main content

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles - David Hone ***

For most of us, dinosaurs have a strangely Victorian feel, with the associations of large, scary skeletons in nineteenth century buildings like the Natural History Museum. However, not only has knowledge of this remarkable group of animals moved on hugely since those skeletons were first put on show, the amount we have learned in the last 20 years eclipses everything that has come before, so it is valuable to have a really up-to-date view of dinosaurs, and in particular that most popular of groupings, the tyrannosaurs.

It's appropriate that I mention a Victorian feel, as David Hone's writing does have something of a fussy academic style. Unlike some academics who write popular science, he retains a precision and requirement to note uncertainty in some detail that doesn't make for the best reading, even if it is strictly the most accurate way to present what is, and isn't known. (I assumed he was about 70 from his style, but from the photo he's a lot younger.) However, this isn't disastrous and there is no doubt that what he gives us is a thorough grounding in dinosaurs in general, how the various tyrannosaurs (it's not just T. rex, by any means) fit into the bigger picture and a lot of the detail we know about them.

What's refreshing about this book is the clear presentation of just how difficult it is to make definitive statements based on a few, often fragmentary remains of animals that lived many millions of years ago. Even an apparently obvious distinction like whether an animal is male or female, or whether it is a small species or the juvenile of a different large species, is anything but straightforward. This approach is a wonderful counter to the likes of the TV show Walking with Dinosaurs (ironically Hone has written for the WwD website), which may have entertained its large audiences with its apparent 'facts', but made vast unsupported assumptions that Hone sweeps aside to show what we really know and don't know.

It's not possible to give this book more than three stars, because it suffers deeply from what you might call Rutherford's disease. The great physicist Ernest Rutherford infamously said 'All science is either physics or stamp collecting,' mocking the way some scientific disciplines are primarily about collecting and collating information, and the majority of The Tyrannosaur Chronicles is a step-by-step, working through what we know about different bits of the skeletons, what we can deduce about their diet from their skeletons, what we can deduce about the way they moved from their skeletons, what we deduce about their feathers from fossil remains and so forth. It will delight the young (or old) dinosaur enthusiast who wants to absorb every last piece of evidence, but it can be quite hard going for the general reader.

I found in working through the book that some chapters came across much stronger than others - a topic would suddenly become interesting and give some real insights, but then we'd be back to the stamp collecting. This may have been because some chapters take on a wider remit - so, for instance, one of the chapters I found most interesting was on the physiology of the tyrannosaurs, because rather than just describe (for instance) the skull and its implications, as one chapter does, the physiology chapter talks about the difference between being warm and cold blooded, showing it's not a simple binary option, and exploring whether dinosaurs, and tyrannosaurs in particular, could be fitted into a particular category and why.

For me, as a reader, by far the best part of the book was something the author probably thinks is totally trivial. I was aware that birds were some kind of relation to dinosaurs, but Hone makes it clear that birds are dinosaurs - and that simple revelation was startling. I'm sure others would get a lot more out of the detailed descriptions and illustrations (I wish there had been more illustrations) than I did. And Hone does a splendid job of showing both how far our understanding has moved on and how much more we need to discover. But it was a book that I found involved a fair amount of work to continue reading.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…